Our “curriculum”: update about the boys (August 2011)
Every once in a while, someone asks me what “curriculum” we use. I feel puzzled. What does “curriculum” mean, anyway? In the sense that she was using, I guess it means a pre-bundled set of textbooks and workbooks, often with other supplementary materials. One can find math curricula, language arts curricula, and even whole homeschool curricula. In that sense, we aren’t using any curricula.
This talk of curricula is borrowed from schools, which must adopt packages that all students in a class (or school, or school district, or state, or country–it depends on what level the decision is made) must follow. Because the curriculum has to be appropriate for many different students, and not offensive or even surprising to many stakeholders, many school curricula are ridiculously boring. But homeschoolers have the freedom to choose from a very wide range of curricula, so the problems in terms of fit to student with the curricula chosen by homeschoolers are probably not so bad–I’m sure that’s true.
Still, I’m biased against so-called curricula, insofar as what they are, are sets of ready-made decisions. I don’t like others making my pedagogical decisions for me. That’s one main reason homeschooling is so natural for me. So of course the very idea of an end-to-end curriculum is obnoxious to me. Even a total math, language arts, or history curriculum is obnoxious, mainly because whenever I see a book I like (for example, Singapore Math), I always discover I need something else (such as Two Plus Two Is Not Five–and now, Life of Fred: Apples, which somebody just turned me on to [happy now, Mike?] and which we started quite enthusiastically). The other reason I’m biased against curricula in general is that they involve the use of textbooks. Now, for certain subjects which it is useful to teach to some extent systematically (such as math, foreign language, logic, and grammar) it is probably a good idea to use textbooks, at some point, anyway. But for much else, I am having a hard time understanding why on Earth it is necessary or even beneficial to use textbooks or workbooks when, it seems to me, you can engage the student better with high-quality books and basic writing assignments?
That is my general approach, which you’ll be able to see as I go through the subjects one by one.
First, my 5-year-old, H. Every morning (well, almost–these days), we do math as well as penmanship/writing, so I’ll start there.
Mathematics. We finally finished the Singapore Earlybird Kindergarten Mathematics textbook (we didn’t use the workbook, though we had it). I liked the concrete-to-abstract approach as well as the emphasis on applied math. We took almost two years to go through the book, which we finished a few months before H. is eligible to start Kindergarten (this fall). (He declares that he doesn’t want to go to school, because he is being homeschooled–he’s totally on board.) I didn’t want to push this too much. Anyway, it certainly seems to have given him an excellent start in math. He still needs to review addition and subtraction and other topics, but the basics are now old hat.
We’ve already started Primary Mathematics 1A, which has a lot of review (for those who have already gone through Kindergarten Math), but which goes through the same material in usefully new ways. We’ll see how he likes it over the long run, but so far it’s been a nice change to be able to skip things because they’re too easy, go through things quickly, and also to take our time consolidating and strengthening his understanding. Generally, I think that the Singapore approach, especially using both Kindergarten and 1A books, will expose H. to many different ways to think about addition and subtraction. I actually like the fact that we spend a lot of time mastering a zillion ways to think about addition and subtraction. I agree with the apparent philosophy of this series that the important thing in studying math is to come to a really firm, “sophisticated” understanding of the basics.
Math hasn’t always been H’s favorite subject, but a few days ago he actually said he liked math. He is encouraged when he gets things right and makes evident progress. He was greatly motivated when we got close to the end of Kindergarten Math. Today, in Two Plus Two Is Not Five (mentioned in the last report), I decided to time how many problems he could do in a minute. He ended up doing more problems than ever before. (Again I must thank the mommies with bright ideas at BrillKids.com for turning us on to this idea.) He isn’t excited about Two Plus Two but he was very happy to observe how much we’ve gone through, and what sorts of problems we’d be able to do quickly when we got to the end of the book. As for me, the reason I’m having him work in this book (about three times a week or so) is that really mastering the math facts will make math later on much, much easier. And the earlier he masters the facts, the more ingrained they’re apt to be. (Of course, I wouldn’t recommend forcing this knowledge on your child, or spending much time on it before a child can start making solid progress. We all want to see our children do the very best they can, but on the other hand, if they are doing top flight work right at age/grade level, that’s probably better, in the long run, than doing advanced but mediocre work earlier on.)
Anyway, H. has gone through a couple levels’ worth of Two Plus Two, and therefore has memorized (or, anyway, can quickly do) quite a few problems. Also, I suspect the process of drilling (I know how that word makes some people shudder) the same types of problems over and over really ingrains an understanding, not just “rote memorization,” of the sums he has mastered.
We’ve sat down to read Life of Fred: Apples for just a couple times now, and my plan is to do it once a week. It’s quirky and occasionally bizarre, as one would expect from a self-published book for kids written by a math professor. Unusually, it combines story-telling and math and is oddly engaging. H. has been quite motivated to do the exercises, of which there aren’t many, but they are very high-quality. Anyway, we’re into it and I’ll have to give a more complete report after we’ve done more.
Penmanship and writing. For a long time we were working out of various penmanship books–mostly but not only Kumon. He didn’t start making more rapid, noticeable progress until I started going through and teaching him letter by letter “myself,” meaning without a workbook, just explaining (usually many times) how to make a letter, and what was wrong with how he has done it. Now his handwriting is getting quite good, at least when he’s trying to get it right.
Basically, we do a few different kinds of penmanship and writing exercises.
Penmanship improvement. He knows both uppercase and lowercase letters pretty well, but often forgets exactly how to write certain letters–and when we are working on penmanship, I have been getting increasingly strict on matters of “correctness.” For a long time, I wasn’t really strict at all because I didn’t want to discourage him and didn’t think he could improve much by my criticizing him. Then, about nine months ago or so, I started getting strict for the first time. At first he resisted, so we took strategic breaks and such, but eventually he got quite used to me erasing what he had just written, showing him exactly where to put the pencil down, and so forth. Though we had tried writing them for well over a year before that, we finally went through all the capital letters carefully and systematically without a book, then we did them again in a Kumon book, at which point he wasn’t bad at all. All that took several months. Then we went through the Kumon lowercase letters book, and at the same time I assigned him 5-6 words or a short sentence to copy. I carefully corrected him as he went through this, and as a result made very rapid progress. He actually didn’t mind this sort of practice, which surprised me. In fact, as we did this (late spring and early summer, this year) he started getting into the practice of writing words, sentences, and other things on scraps of paper to illustrate his various imaginative and creative projects. For example, he made (completely out of his own design) three charming “Wanted” posters the other day, one for each of me, his Mama, and his little brother. They went, “Wanted: Papa. H. wants him” and when he got to Mama it was “Wanted most of all: Mama. H. also wants her.”
Anyway, we finished the Kumon lowercase letters book over a month ago I guess, and since then we have been copying sentences from various books, or he has come up with some of his own. When working on penmanship strictly, I am in the mode of carefully correcting anything that I think he should be doing differently. If he is trying, he can now, with only a few corrections, write most sentences with good penmanship, and he’s continuing to improve. My guess is that within a few months we will be able to stop these “strict” penmanship lessons.
Writing (grammar, punctuation, and spelling). About half of the time we do “writing,” in which I assiduously refrain from correcting his penmanship, and we focus instead on writing a “composition,” which means writing much more. It’s usually just two or three sentences–but the amount he can write in a session has been noticeably increasing. I correct his spelling, punctuation, and spacing between words (whether he puts spaces between words is still hit or miss, but he’s getting better all the time). For these we usually use Mead Redispace notebooks.
For a rank beginner, as spelling expert Richard Gentry might be interested to note, his spelling is remarkably good. He often comes up with the right spelling for semi-difficult words without any help from me. He can spell the easier words perfectly almost all the time and, when he was getting started, required almost no help or tutoring from me on these. This, I think, is because of the enormous amount of reading we have done up to now, together with his intensive training in phonics. So our approach is simply to practice, practice, practice, and very regularly too–with nearly instant feedback from me in most cases. (Sometimes he’ll do these writing assignments without me sitting over his shoulder, but if I’m not there, more often than not he’s not motivated enough.)
Another thing we do, maybe once a week, is to pick a picture to describe, sometimes from a step-by-step “how to draw” book, then draw it again in a half-drawing half-writing book, then write a sentence or two to go with it. This way we get a little art in with the writing. H. always likes these assignments.
Now, let me digress and answer a question about language arts curricula.
When their children are starting not just to write their letters but actually to write, I gather that many homeschooling families adopt workbooks that systematically teach grammar, spelling, punctuation, consonants and vowels, and so forth. Not us, or at least, not yet and not until I can clearly see some advantage to using such books. The problem with them, first of all, is that they are almost always boring. The words and sentences don’t come out of the child’s idiosyncratic, constantly-changing experience or interest. They frequently and tiresomely go over things that he knows. For example, we started going through the Kumon My Book of Writing Words, and stopped after a couple of pages, because H. just hated it and it became clear to me that it was quite pointless. He knew how to spell all those words, and in the few cases of words he couldn’t figure out, he would quickly learn in the context of practicing actual writing.
This leads me to the second problems with such language arts curricula: they don’t seem necessary for learning what they have to teach. I am about 90% sure that if we simply write a little every day–increasing amounts over the months and years–and if I am on hand to correct his writing and explain the rules and concepts that he has not learned, then in the end, he’ll have learned all the elements of writing much better and more efficiently than if he had studied such things out of context in a textbook or workbook. For example, lately, he has gotten into the habit of starting sentences with “And,” and putting exclamation points on the end of most sentences. I am gently explaining why these are not done, although I’m not being too much of a hard-ass about it yet, maybe just because it’s still kind of cute.
You might say that it is possible to teach spelling, in particular, systematically, and I can’t disagree with you there. Ditto with the more difficult/unpredictable aspects of grammar. Those are things that we will very probably tackle, systematically, after a few years. At some point, we will no doubt memorize spelling and vocabulary words, and also go through a real grammar. But for the early elementary grades, it seems just obvious to me as I teach my son “in the trenches,” that, by simple practice, he can maintain the best motivation and get the most efficient training in the arts that make up writing.
That goes double for language arts “readers.” The thought has never even once seriously crossed my mind that we might use the sort of readers that I was subjected to in my elementary school years–I still remember the boredom. There are so many great chapter books and other books (including nonfiction, especially history and science) that a child can use to learn to fine-tune his reading skills, that I can’t fathom why any homeschooler would give a “reader” a second thought.
Ah, you say, but what about reading comprehension? Well, let’s talk about that.
“Reading.” I’ve been letting H. escape from his afternoon nap with an hour of reading to himself instead. I reported last time about how much reading he’s been doing. Lately, for some reason, he’s been wanting to read out loud–he says he likes it more–but he ends up reading a quarter of the amount he is able to read silently. (He can read a huge amount silently.) Anyway, I’m upstairs working and after his reading time is up, I take a break and we do an oral exam. I flip through the book and think of reading comprehension questions that will both prove that he has done the reading but also help him to understand and remember what he’s read better. As I said last time, he usually is able to answer the questions quite well, often better than I think I’d be able to do. Occasionally I try to get him to summarize a whole story for me, but he resists. That’s something we need to work on, not because it will improve comprehension or memory, but because the very ability to tell a narrative is important, and one learns this by doing.
By the way, and I hope I’m not being too repetitive or boastful, but his reading memory and comprehension, even (or maybe especially) when he reads silently and very quickly, is amazing. Most of the time lately he’s been picking very easy books to read, like some of his old picture books, but a few days ago he chose Chlorine in the rather good (and huge) “True Book” series. Thinking he wouldn’t get it, I asked him when chlorine was discovered. He said 1774 or 1776 (I forget) and then added “but it was officially discovered in 1810,” which is exactly what the book said. He can quite frequently answer “why” questions rather well, too. He read a book about The Monitor recently too and could explain what a blockade was and why the North had blockaded southern ports.
(In his copious pretend play, knowledge from his history, science, and other reading and experimentation is put to use. For example, a few days ago he was explaining how something that I would have thought was a fairly random pile of blocks was a blockade of southern ports.)
Now I ask you: is this worse than using a language arts reader complete with reading comprehension questions? He picks the books (90% of the time), so they are of some interest to him. Even if he is reluctant when starting to read, as he often is (see below), his interest comes out especially well in the oral exam; he rarely if ever expresses any sort of boredom then, and frequently seems quite excited to tell what he’s learned.
Would it, instead, help him to spend much time actually writing out answers to comprehension questions, as those tiresome language arts texts had me do when I was in elementary school? A little, probably; but writing is so difficult now that we had better focus on those kinds of writing that he actually has a taste for. Generally, I think writing out “comprehension” questions for any text (on any subject), just as part of “homework,” is inefficient and annoying and therefore mostly falls in the category of busywork. If a student understands himself to be writing, say, an opinionated encyclopedia of a subject, or a thoughtful and original essay or report–in other words, something that involves some thought and judgment and not merely copying out and rewording answers–then the result will be of personal interest and thus, potentially anyway, genuinely engaging. The same would go for a series of questions that does not merely require copying answers out of the text but instead the combination of careful textual reading with deep reflection, then the answers themselves can have high interest and even be quite personally satisfying (this happens in philosophy, anyway).
But H. is only five. He is far away from being able to write such things or think in such ways. In the meantime, we’ll do our oral exams and get ourselves gradually to the point where we can retell a story very nicely.
Keeping H. supplied with enough books that are not too difficult for him to read to himself, and which are high-interest to him, is something of a problem. We have quite a few unread books now, so I don’t really feel like getting a lot more, but H. is very choosy (often exasperatingly so) about what he wants to spend his 60 minutes on. He is no longer always interested in reading about trucks or other subjects that (I thought) are of high interest to him. Books that are quite interesting to him when I read to him are often difficult for him to read to himself (not to say impossible–he just doesn’t want to put in the effort, and I don’t want to force him). So he ends up reading things at the third grade level, the sorts of things that I read a lot to him when he was three. That, of course, is how it usually is: most kids read to themselves at a level below what they’re capable of taking on board when parents read to them. He’s been re-reading quite a bit of stuff that I have read to him, which is fine with me–he always learns a lot more the second time through.
I’ve also resorted recently to a somewhat involved system of bribery. Yes, I’ve heard some about the dangers of this, but I’m not convinced; I’ve used it before without any evident ill effects so far. The system involves earning “units” and “credits,” which can be exchanged for lollipops, Hot Wheels, and even Harry Potter Lego sets (I see someone else had a similar idea). He got his first lollipop a week or two ago and declared that he loved his incentive–and for the amount of reading he did to get it, so far it’s looking like a rather good system. It has gotten him reading more, and reading out loud less (reading silently = more pages finished = more “units”).
Finally in the “reading” category, there is the reading I do to him. We started reading Hans Christian Anderson fairy tales–the original (in translation). To be able to take the originals on board properly, a child really does have to be something like five or older. He’s loving it, and so are his Mama and me. No idea what the baby thinks, but he’s hearing a lot of language. At bedtime, we’ve read a lot more than I can recount here, but we finished reading The Moffats last night (and listened to it in the car twice, and he wanted to start it again, but I drew the line–anyway, highly recommended for 5-8 years old), Harry Potter #1 (for the very first time–almost done with this too, and he’s quite excited about it), The Great Brain (which frankly he’s not too keen on just now, though it’s similar in style, mood, and level to The Moffats), and something I was surprised to find: Stories from Plato and other Classic Writers.
I should probably write a review. It’s a reprint of an 1894…and wait for it…reader. So, OK, it is from back when readers actually had something to offer. But for the Internet, I’m sure this wouldn’t be in print and I wouldn’t have heard about it. Basically, the editor repackaged and rewrote a bunch of myths, history, and even lightweight philosophy for children all taken from classical (Greek and Roman) sources. It is right at H.’s level right now. We’ve read the absolutely wonderful Tales from the Odyssey by the Magic Tree House author Mary Pope Osborne and lots of other myths (we’re also reading D’Aulaire’s Book of Greek Myths at mealtime) and a fair bit about ancient history as well. (Have I raved about Tales from the Odyssey yet? What a great series it is. We listened to it all the way through and read it, all in a short space. It was one of the best experiences, if not the very best, I’ve had reading a book to H.) So anyway this reader takes his understanding a bit further, introducing him to an unpredictable (and somewhat uneven) assortment of stories, concepts, and characters from classical literature. One of the nicest features is that the stories are mostly very short, not more than five pages, and mostly self-contained, so I can slip one in before another chapter of Harry Potter. On the other hand, some of the stories are a little weird. But that’s because of the source material. Folktales and myths are frequently very weird and quite refreshingly diverse. You might think, if you haven’t read such traditional material recently, that it is all the same. It isn’t at all, not in the slightest. It’s some of the most imaginative, off-the-wall stuff you can find, far more so than most modern stories.
History. Let me tell you a little about how I feel about history and education. History is the backbone of the humanities, at the elementary level. History provides essential background concepts and narratives for classic literature, and is absolutely necessary for any understanding of politics and economics, as well as any sophisticated study of geography and cultures. It actually provides an introduction to these subjects, too. So I’ve put some thought into how to get H. interested in history, and as it turns out, he is actually quite interested in it. We’ve read dozens of short history books and are now working our way through some longer ones for the first time.
We do 2-4 pages of history reading at the start of our bedtime reading. This might seem trivial, but if you’re reading this little bit every night virtually without fail, as we do, it adds up to something like 300 pages of chapter book history in 100 days and over 1,000 pages per year. And now if that sounds like too much, well, bear in mind that we were very well prepared to take on board the history books we’re tackling by the time we started in earnest, earlier this year. We had read, as I said, dozens of easy, short history books, to say nothing of Magic Tree House books and my history presentations, etc. Also, now, when we read those pages of history, we also usually look at pictures or videos on the iPad (e.g., recently, of the South American Nazca drawings) and also pronunciations. So it turns out that history is now one of H’s favorite subjects. I like it a lot too.
In addition to Bauer’s Story of the World and Usborne’s Ancient World, we’re also working through The Kingfisher Atlas of the Ancient World and Gombrich’s Little History of the World. We’re slowly but steadily covering the same material in each different source, which is very interesting as well as being an excellent way to solidify knowledge. You’d think that there would be too much repetition–well, not at all. In fact, it’s more exciting to us when the sources repeat and elaborate each other (so to speak), though it’s also interesting when they approach the same subject in different ways. Occasionally we find outright conflicts as well, which is interesting too.
We are almost always working our way through some other history book during mealtime as well. We recently finished The Second World War, in the fantastic Usborne Young Reading series. I don’t know what we would have done without Usborne’s history books–there just isn’t anything else like them out there. They’re not too long, not too hard, and yet extremely substantive and generally a “class act.”
Science. As to science, we’ve been reading a couple of science books during mealtimes. We just finished Basher’s Periodic Table: Elements with Style, which in terms of language is quite challenging, and we wouldn’t have been able to read a year ago. But H. really liked it when he saw it, and he was very game to finish it, so we did. We also just finished a quite substantive and advanced book about electronics, which I wouldn’t recommend–it’s not bad, but I’m sure there are better. It’s just that we got into it and eventually sort of felt obligated to finish it (over a long period of time). Both of these books are advanced, and we’ve been reading them only because they happen to be accessible to H., due to his previous reading, and cover very basic topics. We also fairly regularly read books about different animal species (there are thousands of such books, and we must have over a hundred). Of course, we also do experiments of various sorts from time to time. Had a lot of fun with Diet Coke and Mentos the other day. We’ve studied geology relatively little so far, and I found this book (at Half Price Books) which looks like a nice slightly-more-advanced introduction, so we’re on something like fact #15. By the way, we read the book about Ancient Egypt in this “100 facts” series and liked it quite a lot. For the amount of info in them, the rather good writing, and the quite excellent quality of illustrations and photography, they’re surprisingly cheap.
Latin. Rosetta Stone Latin, Level 1, continues to be quite doable. (This is no doubt due to H.’s copious language training, not to mention the fact that his mother speaks a foreign language to him exclusively.) Theoretically, we do Latin every day, either in the morning before breakfast or late afternoon before dinner. In the last month or so, it’s been more like three times a week, but I have every intention to get us back into it daily. If I don’t remember to do it, H. usually won’t remind me!
Geography and cultures. We haven’t been working much on this beyond what we absorb through history (which is not a trivial amount, actually). H. still plays with the Stack the Countries app, which is fun. We also put together geography puzzles regularly, and he did this Europe one recently over a mealtime (and didn’t take the whole mealtime–did I mention that our mealtimes are kind of weird?). I regularly think we’re going to start a systematic study of countries, states, or other geographical topics, but I never get us started. Well, before too long anyway.
Music. In May or June we tried piano lessons for a month and dropped them–H. wasn’t getting much more out of them than he got out of them with me. As of a week ago, we’re now having (theoretically) three “micro-lessons” per day, around breakfast, lunch, and dinner-time. We average more like 1.5 a day. They take about five minutes each, because I basically just have him practice two pieces each once or twice. As a result of this latest effort, he’s re-learning (very simple) pieces he first played a year or more ago, and playing them much better than ever before. We’ve just got two pieces to go and we’ll finally be done with Music for Little Mozarts #1. I really feel like, this time, we’ll stick with it and make progress. Maybe when he’s done a few of these books with me (I am not out of my depth yet–I had 8 years of piano lessons when I was a kid), he’ll have more patience for a real teacher.
Chess. We’re sort of approaching this as an academic subject. We’re halfway through Chess for Children, which I can recommend–it’s challenging for this 5-year-old, though–and I play games with him pretty regularly. I often play with him as a “really dumb guy,” which H. gets a big kick out of. We also got an account on chesskid.com, not sure if we’ll use it much. Tried to find some local chess clubs for children open to him; no luck yet, he’s still young. Found a nice iPad app to teach kids, called Dinosaur Chess, but there isn’t actually that much to it. H. likes it though–I guess it’s two bucks well spent. He still doesn’t quite have patience to sit through a real game from beginning to end. We have played several games to the end, but I do help him a lot. He knows how the pieces move pretty well, can recognize a piece he can snag, and is starting to learn some basic principles.
Logic. OK, we aren’t really studying logic, we’re just doing several pages of Lollipop Logic Book 2 once a week. Here’s how I feel about it and why we’re doing it. In short: it’s not terribly important, but H. actually requested it and it can’t hurt.
Art. We aren’t doing any art history regularly now, though we did read The Impressionists in the Usborne Young Readers series not too long ago. I don’t really train H. in art other than using that drawing book I discussed above. He draws lots of random pictures these days, mostly of vehicles, but sometimes other things as well. (Totoro, one of his favorite characters, after I gave him step-by-step instructions.) This not assigned or anything. He’s making some progress but his drawings probably don’t look much different from other five year olds’. I should mention that he wasn’t drawing or scribbling that much until, I don’t know, about six months ago–around the time I started teaching him writing more. He still just doesn’t want to color. He doesn’t like copying other pictures or following instructions (most of the time) or engaging in group activities–he’s fiercely independent. (But he’s a good boy.) So the whole idea of coloring someone else’s drawing, let alone coloring inside the lines, seems to be a non-starter for him. Who knows, maybe he’ll change when he gets older. He has mellowed out quite a bit since he turned five, just as the books said he would.
I’m going to have to cover baby E. another time. He’s making good progress too!
About the author
I call myself an "Internet Knowledge Organizer." I started Wikipedia.org, Citizendium.org, WatchKnowLearn.org, ReadingBear.org, and Infobitt. I write about education and the Internet from a broadly philosophical point of view.